To reiterate what the Chairman has said, today is a very historic and special day, given that Traveller organisations are invited here today to present to a committee with the first Traveller chairperson, who is a Traveller woman. I want to acknowledge that. I thank all members of the committee for the opportunity to highlight matters related to the Traveller accommodation crisis and to consider actions to alleviate the ongoing crisis in delivering a home for Travellers.
Despite legislative protection since 1998, there are currently 2,000 families living in inadequate, unsafe conditions in shared and overcrowded accommodation or on roadsides. The current Traveller accommodation programmes show a need nationally to supply for 2,871 families. While this figure is thought to be an underestimate, either way, the current programmes are not fit for purpose and only 22 local authorities plan to address the full identified need in their area. It is important to remember that when I am talking about statistics, I am talking about Traveller men, women and especially children who are forced to live in dreadful conditions, even today, in Ireland in 2021.
In 2020, just 16 new units of Traveller-specific accommodation were built or refurbished - seven houses, no additional bays and nine welfare units. So far this year, just €1.7 million has been drawn down from the Traveller accommodation capital budget, a repeated pattern by local authorities since the beginning of the programmes. There is low intention but sanctions have not been put in place. Between the years 2008 and 2019, more than €72 million was unspent by local authorities, without the necessary oversight in place to intervene and with no sanctions applied. Investment by Government declined from €120 million for the first Traveller accommodation programme, TAP,from 2000 to 2004 to just €33 million for the latest TAP. Annual budgets showed the allocation in 2008 was €40 million compared to just €14.5 million in 2020. The sad reality is that regardless of the amount of the budget that is put aside and set for Traveller-specific accommodation, year after year, it goes unspent. That has to change because Traveller children are left in dire conditions. There is no excuse for that in Ireland today, especially when the money is there. The budget is not the issue.
Despite the report of the expert review in 2019, the 2017 review of funding for Traveller-specific accommodation and the implementation of TAPs by the Housing Agency, there is still no national oversight or accountability when local authorities set low or no targets for delivery of Traveller-specific accommodation, do not account for future population growth in their plans and do not reach their own targets within the period. I have to beg the question of what other community this would be done to, and what other children would be left without toilets and without water, not just now, but for decades.
Travellers are more disproportionately affected than any other group in official homeless figures, accounting for as high as 50% of people within the homeless emergency services, despite comprising less than 1% of the overall population. We have heard testimonies and heartbreaking stories of families living for close to four years in emergency accommodation, driving an 80 km distance to another county to try to save their children’s education. That should not be happening in today’s Ireland. Thousands more families are trapped in hidden homelessness caused by grossly inadequate and overcrowded accommodation, and they are not even recognised as homeless. Some are sharing bays, houses or rundown trailers, often on local authority-owned sites where these conditions are known by local authorities. Many wake up to leaking roofs, rats, chronic damp and mould on their blankets, and some are forced to share a Portaloo with 15 other people. This is their normal, forced state of living.
There are 2,800 Travellers living on unofficial sites, most without stable electricity, sanitation or any security of tenure. They risk eviction on a daily basis and criminalisation for being Travellers, but with no place to go. Babies are born into situations that in any other country would be deemed an international scandal but, unfortunately, in Ireland, it is brushed under the carpet. Some poor little babies have chronic health conditions and come home to a situation where they cannot access a stable electricity supply to support their medical equipment.
These figures and these heartbreaking stories are unacceptable by any standard. Behind them are families, humans, Travellers. We heard powerful stories in the Ombudsman for Children’s report last week, where Traveller children described their home as “like an abandoned place that people forgot about. It’s like we’re forgotten. We feel like garbage”. No child should be inflicted with that trauma but, unfortunately, Traveller children are. Those children number upwards of 3,000. While the site in Cork investigated is among the worst in the country, there are many across the country, especially in Dublin's four local authorities. An Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, report covering all local authority Traveller accommodation responsibilities is still awaited, almost two years after its planned publication. Again, it must be a priority to have that published. Children on those sites are unduly burdened by the inaction of local authorities, which are duty-bound to provide accommodation but instead have failed them. We know that the insecurity arising from poor accommodation has a profound effect on life opportunities and has been the cause of many of my community experiencing intergenerational poverty, disadvantage, poor health and trauma.
Covid-19 highlighted the crisis further and brought it more centre stage. While the ministerial intervention offered in 2020 is to be applauded, unfortunately, much was left undone.
So far this year, just €89,550 has been drawn down for this purpose. The outcomes of a report on the 31 local authorities’ responses to Covid-19 in Traveller accommodation are unclear. It took Covid-19 for some families to get water and portable toilets as a temporary emergency measure. If Covid-19 had not come into our lives, those families would still be without water and portable toilets. There has to be a strategy where those services are permanent to families and their permanent accommodation needs are met.
We welcome progress being made in establishing the programme board to oversee recommendations of the expert review of Traveller accommodation. These need to be accelerated as soon as possible and time made up for delays in 2020. There is a need for an independent national Traveller accommodation authority to oversee those recommendations. Funds must be ring-fenced for implementation of the 32 recommendations. Otherwise, we fear they will not be implemented and the good work that is starting to happen will be undone. It is crucial a circumventing of Part 8 of the planning process to An Bord Pleanála should feature in the future plans as recommended by the expert group.
Criminalising nomadism represents the State's policy going back to the 1963 Report of the Commission on Itinerancy, which set the tone for decades afterwards. It was a report that was developed about us without us. We must be the generation to undo the damage and undo the trauma that inflicted. The only way we can do that is by working together to ensure the 32 recommendations of the expert group report are implemented so that Traveller children no longer suffer and are no longer hidden on the margins of society.
We refer the Chair to the recommendations made in our submission to the committee and are happy to provide any further information.